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Smeltzer: Once Again, the Penn State Offense Came up Small on a Big Stage

Photo by Jordan Leneberg, Nittany Sports Now: Drew Allar

Atlanta— If the Penn State offense showed up against Michigan and Ohio State, it would be playing in the College Football Playoff New Year’s Day.

But it didn’t happen that way. As a result, Penn State ended up playing two days prior against a good but not overwhelming Ole Miss team.

With QB Drew Allar and company not having the pressure to compete for a Big Ten title, the offense being at full-strength with the exception of star left tackle Olu Fashanu and facing a defense that finished the regular season ranked outside the top 50 in total defense, people thought, maybe, that Penn State would go off.

Maybe there’d be extra motivation due to co-coordinators Ja’Juan Seider and Ty Howle coaching their last game in the role before Andy Kotelnicki takes over next season.

Maybe Penn State’s receivers— any of them— would catch a pass before the fourth quarter.

Maybe…

Instead, Penn State’s offense— despite not having the defense’s issues of multiple opt-outs/key players playing limited snaps— had the same problems that plagued it chronically throughout the regular season. Allar was inaccurate and ineffective.

Running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen were effective when given the chance. But because of Penn State’s passing game being about as dangerous as a kitten, it was easy for Ole Miss to sell  out for the run, which it did, and force Penn State to beat them through the air, which it didn’t.

Then, there’s the receivers. None of Penn State’s wideouts caught a pass until Liam Clifford did 1:45 into the fourth quarter. Top wideout KeAndre Lambert-Smith didn’t catch any passes. KLS ended the season with a total of two catches for 28 yards over PSU’s last three games. Veteran Dante Cephas— who eclipsed 1,000 yards and a season at Kent State but had just 246 in his first season with Penn State— was a healthy scratch. Franklin confirmed that in his postgame presser.

“Everything’s an open competition every week, and the depth chart reflects that,” Franklin said. “Then obviously when you’re in a bowl situation and you’ve got three weeks, there’s a lot of movement that can occur in three weeks. Part of that is having Trey Wallace back that we had not had for about five weeks this year.”

Wallace, who was Penn State’s No. 2 receiver when healthy, missed most of the 2023 season due to injury.

He came into the year with a career total of 273 yards and a touchdown.

Yet, when he got hurt early in the season, it felt like a big blow to Penn State.

With all due respect to Wallace, who’s a talented receiver and, from my brief experience talking to him, a fine young man, isn’t the fact that his absence throughout the season was so noticeable despite his limited track record telling? Most seasons, Wallace would be a depth piece. But Penn State had no depth at receiver this year.Maybe Wallace and Lambert-Smith would have formed a solid 1-2 punch had Wallace not missed more than half the season. But even then, the depth would have been a problem.

From the fifth-year senior Cephas to the younger receivers such as Omari Evans and Kaden Saunders, nobody broke through. That doesn’t help a first-year starting QB.

Although it’s obvious to everybody watching that Penn State’s receivers collectively didn’t have a successful 2023, whether or not Allar did is harder to answer.

The five-star from Medina, Ohio did a lot of good things in 2023.

He took care of the ball. Allar only threw two interceptions compared to 25 touchdown passes. He looked dominant at times, such as in Penn State’s first regular-season game, (at home against West Virginia) last regular-season game (at Michigan State at Detroit’s Ford Field) and at Maryland in between. With two first-rate running backs, a good offensive line, an excellent tight end room and the No. 1 total defense in the country backing him, Allar didn’t need to be consistently spectacular for Penn State to win. Most Saturdays, he did his job well enough to not hurt Penn State.

But when Penn State played on its biggest stages, Allar played his worst football.

At Ohio State, he completed just 18 of his 42 passes for 191 yards.

Against Michigan at Beaver Stadium, he threw for 70 yards and went 10-for-22.

His stats against Ole Miss (19 for 39, 295 yards, TD, INT) look better. But a lot of those yards happened in garbage time. When Penn State played against its best competition, Allar came up short. The same could be said for the rest of the offense. Even the firing of coordinator Mike Yurcich (for the time being), didn’t solve the problem. It was obvious that Allar didn’t have the help he needed at receiver, but he’d be the first to say he didn’t help himself enough, either.

So now, all Penn State can do is think about next season, and the pressure is on.

It’s on new offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki to put his players in the best positions to succeed.

It’s on Allar to take a leap and play like a five-star.

It’s on receivers coach Marques Hagans to recruit quality talent out of the transfer portal and then develop said talent. This would give Allar the help he didn’t have at that position this year.

It’s on the running backs and tight ends to keep up the good work. It’s on OL coach Phil Trautwein to coach up a unit that will have at least three new starters.

Penn State’s defense played at a national championship level in 2023. Maybe the offense doesn’t need to match that on 2024. But it has to be better than this.

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